AFGE Local 781 representing doctors, psychologists, physical therapists, and other professionals at Edward Hines Veterans Affairs Hospital outside Chicago is calling for an investigation into cronyism, bullying, racism, and toxic work environment that have exacerbated the high turnover and staffing shortages brought on by COVID burnout and uncompetitive pay.
These toxic working conditions have been an issue at the 125-acre facility staffed by 5,000 employees for years. A recent survey of nurses provided details of their concerns. Even though the local doesn’t represent nurses at Hines, the employees represented by the local reported the same problems. The local has repeatedly brought up the issues with management, but all they get is “We hear you”.
“They are not listening to unions,” said Local 781 President Germaine Clarno. “We have high turnover. Pay is not competitive. Lots of people are making more money in the private sector. But most people stay at the VA because they love veterans despite horrific working conditions.”
Making matters worse, the VA’s commission tasked with recommending closures of VA facilities has recommended that Jesse Brown VA hospital be merged with Hines, adding more problems to the facility that has failed to address existing issues.
The local has been working with two other unions representing nurses and non-professionals at the hospital – National Nurses United and Service Employees International Union.
They held a joint press conference and a rally on May 12 to protest the toxic working conditions and demand change.
Clarno said this is the first time in 10 years since she’s been the local president that the three unions are joining forces to fight management, who previously succeeded in dividing and pitching the unions against one another.
Clarno said the three unions now meet weekly before Friday meetings with management.
“We share what management has done to pull us apart. We’re stronger. We’re motivated. We’re gonna make some change,” she said.
For the investigation, Clarno said they want it done by the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), not the VA inspector general whom they don’t trust to carry out a fair investigation because the IG office is on campus and staff knows management.
Besides, Clarno said she had been burned before when reporting the wait-list problem in 2014. She found out through an OSC investigation that the IG told management that she had reported the wait-list problem, which she was not aware at the time that it was a VA-wide issue. Retaliation was immediate.
“It was hostile for me. It got dirty looks. There was a rumor that I was lying. But OSC found my disclosure was validated, so in the end it worked out,” she added.